Joseph Crilly’s On McQuillan’s Hill was first performed at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast in February 2000, opening to rave reviews. Meanwhile, across the channel, Irish plays had never been so popular: as Michael Billington commented, “it seemed as if all the plays in London in the early 2000s were Irish”. Now, 20 years later, following Crilly’s unfortunate passing, On McQuillan’s Hill has finally been given its London debut at the Finborough Theatre, delivering the same rawness, truth and courage it did all those decades ago.
It’s 1999 in rural Ulster, and Fra Maline has just been released from the H-Block through the Good Friday Agreement. Returning home to a small village hall, he plans to revisit the area and the relationships that defined him; lost lovers and forgotten family. However, the homecoming unearths buried trauma and smothered secrets: after a legacy of sectarian violence, can Maline, and indeed Ireland, ever be the same again?
As a text, Crilly’s script shines as both part-of and separated-from the Irish canon of plays: he touches upon the canon’s defining themes of emigration and identity, but then equally asserts his on own spin in the subject matter, reaching dark, introspective depths other playwrights refuse to venture into. Indeed, Johnathon Harden’s direction leans into this bleakness, confronting the audience with the grim realities the characters face, not shying away from it. It is at times overwhelming, but also deeply gratifying: nothing has been sanitised; the depiction of Ulster is utterly raw and utterly rewarding.
Moreover, Harden infuses in the play something of a melancholic anger: like much of Ireland, the characters seem rooted in their trauma, feeling that they’ve lost the past and are being left out of the future. Each of them struggle to come to terms with their own histories, effusing both rage and vulnerability. Moreover, the actors thrive in fully realising these lived-in characters – there is not a single weak link in the cast. The stand-out, however, is Julie Maguire as Theresa Maline: by far the youngest on stage, Maguire succeeds in portraying the complexity of being born into the traumatised country, effortlessly delivering the pain, confusion and acceptance that comes with it.
This is not to say the play is easy viewing. Far from it: the language is idiosyncratic and hidden behind strong accents; the pacing is languid as the characters slowly unpack their issues, and their actions are equal parts infuriating and understandable. This production is hard work to access, and even harder work to digest. Nevertheless, for those who have the stamina to do so, they will be treated by a production that is thoughtful, prescient and a great reflection of Crilly’s legacy.
On McQuillan’s Hills is playing at the Finborough Theatre until 29 February. For more information and tickets, visit the Finborough Theatre website.